Navigating Complex Tokyo — ‘Scarlett Johansson’ a Help

March 14, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Sven Krogius


Scarlett Johansson has never really spoken to me. Pretty enough perhaps, but I could never figure out why the likes of Woody Allen rave over her. Well, after my trip to Japan, I’ve revisited my views on Scarlett; her star has risen dramatically in my sky. Her large image in triplicate sporting a progressively wider smile holding a magnum of Moët Chandon that currently graces one of Tokyo’s busier thoroughfares — the Roppongi Crossing — was my lodestar.

Without Scarlett and her Moët, I would have fumbled about aimlessly for many minutes in the Roppongi (reportedly Tokyo’s most popular night-

life district among foreigners); with her and her Moët, my bearings were fixed and could I make my way back to my small hotel room without further ado.

Tokyo is a disorienting place. In addition to being enormous and dynamic, there are a host of other elements that make navigation difficult. The streets in most areas swirl (no comforting grid pattern other than in the Ginza, a shopping mecca, and the areas around Tokyo Central Station) and there is no central lake or river that serves as an easy guide.

Much of the architecture in the various districts appears disarmingly similar — much of it in the form of modern boxy high-rises. Many of the smaller streets bear no name — so finding a particular address (particular street blocks may be identified only as being in a sector of a larger area) can befuddle even taxi drivers. Maps of the local area near the metro exits often are not oriented with a standard North up pointer, which can make them very difficult to follow.

Little English Spoken

An added layer of complexity is that English is not widely spoken. While Japanese typically study English for several years in school, it seems that spoken facility is generally quite limited among the common man. One cabby belted out a very convincing “Friday Night-o” to explain the slowness of the Friday evening traffic, but we couldn’t really get much beyond that.

But my intention is certainly not to turn you off. Tokyo is pulsing with energy. Where New York has one Times Square, Tokyo seems to have no fewer than three (Roppongi, Shinjuku and Shibuya for a start), and endless retail and dining emporiums, electronic shops and pachinko parlors (halls with arcade games that are vaguely akin to slot machines). And there are a number of pleasant temples and shrines in Tokyo where things move at a slower pace.

Efficient Metro

And I sing the highest praise for the Tokyo metro system: it is remarkably user friendly. Tickets are very easy to purchase via vending machines (English-enabled) at each station (subway day passes cost 1,000 yen, about $12 U.S., and are very good value); each station bears a clear Roman-letter designation of the station name as well as an identifying number so you can tell how you are progressing along a given color-coded train line; most stations have their own white-gloved station-masters who ensure that commuters stand back as the trains approach; and the trains are speedy and stations are spotlessly clear.A Prada store glitters in Tokyo, which ‘must be the retail capital of the world.’ Photos by Sven Krogius

To get a feel for the city’s giant panorama, I would recommend a trip to the 360-degree viewing deck on the top of the 54-story Mori Tower in Roppongi. If you thought New York had a lot of those red aviation warning lights gracing its skyline, be prepared for a surprise: Tokyo outdoes it in spades. An endless sea of red dots in all directions.


I began my Tokyo adventure by tackling the important temples/shrines and museums. Important stops included the Senso-ji, an old Buddhist temple in the northeastern district of Asakusa, and the Tosho-gu Shinto shrine, in the northern district of Ueno. The Senso-ji complex feature a large red gate (the Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate” — the suffix “mon” indicates “gate” as in “Rashomon” — which was the main city gate in Kyoto) complete with a massive paper lantern and wooden sculptures of two fearsome red-bodied nio, the guardians of the temples, as well as a five-story pagoda and a red main temple housing an image of the Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy).

The Tosho-gu featured a stone torii, a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine (typically featuring two vertical posts and two horizontal posts), and many very attractive copper and stone standing lanterns. I still don’t have a good feel for the division between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, but one simple difference seems to be that torii designates the area as Shinto.

Tosho-gu offered a handy English-language etiquette sheet for paying respects at a shrine: first bow lightly, then throw a coin in the box, ring the hanging bell, deeply and respectfully bow twice, clap your hands twice and deeply and respectfully bow again.

Sense of History

Ueno park which encompasses the Tosho-gu also has along its odd gifts a memorial dedicated to Ulysses S. Grant’s visit to Tokyo in 1879. The Tokyo National Museum, also located in Ueno Park is also worth a visit. It gives a good feel for the developments in art from the Nara period (dating from 710 to 794) up through the Edo period (1603 to 1868) and the Meiji period (1868-1912). I was particularly interested in the rooms dedicated to Noh plays and gowns. Next up was the shrine of Meiji-jingu, a complex completed in 1921 in the sprawling Yoyogi Park to deify the memory of the Meiji emperor, the emperor who ascended the throne in 1868, ended the powers of the country’s shoguns and moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. The huge wooden torii at the entrance to the park and the elaborately carved doors of the temples were highlights of the Meiji-jingu.


Now let’s talk retail for a bit. Tokyo must be the retail capital of the world. I counted no less than three major Gucci outlets (one in each of the fashionable Omotesando, Ginza and Shinjuku districts), two Prada outlets, two Tiffanys and even a beloved Paul Stuart shop in my travels. Several of the flagship stores have been designed by world-class architects (including the Prada outlets).

And then there are the superb department stores, with everything under the sun.  Feeling a bit glum due to work-related issues on the third day of my trip, I took to retail therapy Japanese-style, with a trip to the grand dame of Japanese department stores, Takashimaya.

I knew I was in for a treat when I hit the elevator banks. Young women in smart red and black uniforms and bonnet-type caps, white gloves and fully rouged lips ran the show. They indicated which elevators were next up, asked customers to form lines and then beckoned customers into the elevators; they then drove the elevators up using hand operated cranks, announced the floors and elaborately made certain that everyone was safely in the car. It must have been something like Altman’s or Bonwit Teller in the 1960s — or remember the 1960 film “The Apartment,” where Shirley MacLaine manned the elevators at the insurance agency building.

Finding an XXL

It took for ages to get up to the 8th floor — the kimono and robes department — but the ceremony was well worth it. Up on the 8th floor I astonishingly found a samue (a work outfit worn by Japanese Buddhist monks) that fit me — an XXL under Japanese size measurements — and even though the saleswomen spoke virtually no English, we managed to communicate sufficiently to close the sale. Very satisfying.


Permit me a couple of oddities. One, many of the central wards of Tokyo ban smoking on the streets (the ban also applies in much of Kyoto). These wards have designated special smoking sections (crummy outposts with industrial ashtrays located near large intersections) and smoking is punishable by fine if people are caught smoking outside these areas. Yet smoking is permitted in most bars and restaurants and cigarette vending machines are common.

Surgical Masks

Two, a startling number of the pedestrians and commuters in Tokyo wear white surgical masks over their nose and mouth. While a couple of my friends suggested that this was on account of the Japanese desire not to transmit his/her illness to others (harking back to the Japanese obsession with being courteous to others), one of the local fellows I met who seemed very informed suggested it probably had more to do with the fear of contracting illness from others. He noted that he had a newborn at home and really wanted to guard against bringing back any pathogens to the house.  And although apparently in the pink of health, he donned a surgical mask from his pocket when he entered a crowded urban sector.

War Museum

I cannot let Tokyo go without a word on the Yasukini-jinja shrine, dedicated to the soldiers and others who died fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan, and the accompanying war museum. The shrine itself has attracted controversy as a magnet for Japanese nationalism and the war museum has attracted criticism as well for its revisionist view of Japan’s military history. MacArthur and the western editorial staff clearly did not get a chance to soften the prose accompanying the colorful displays.

The crushing of the Boxer Rebellion in China by the Eight-Nation Alliance (including Japan) is noted as an example of brute Western imperialism with the Japanese role in the affair indicated only as that of conducting “rescue operations” (which doesn’t precisely tally with the statistics shown elsewhere in the museum’s display, which indicate that the Japanese had more troops involved and suffered more casualties than any of the other Eight-Nation powers). The Manchurian “incident” (which led to Japan’s full-scale occupation of Manchuria) was justified on the grounds of protecting its citizens and property in Manchuria.

And the overall suggestion is that outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific Theater during World War II was caused principally by the U.S. oil and trade embargo of Japan as the Japanese were forced to invade the Dutch East Indies and Indochina for commodities to supply their growing economy. The Japanese still tout the great victory over the Russians in the Russo-Japanese war, and the overall fortitude of the Japanese military forces. Perhaps the most startling part of the museum is a room devoted Japan’s World War II naval arsenal, which includes a suicide “Kaiten” human torpedo (a long torpedo which was guided by a human pilot) and a suicide boat. Disturbing but very intriguing.

NEXT WEEK: Nikko, Kyoto, Nara.
Sven Krogius, an attorney based in Moscow, is a son of Heights Press editor Henrik Krogius.

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